“Well, if she could ACTUALLY follow, then…”

“He didn’t give me what I wanted. So, I let him know that.”

“God, she’s always off time. It’s impossible to dance with her.”

“He’s so boring. Can’t he just do something interesting once in a while?”

“I didn’t have any good dances because my partners sucked.”

“I lost that competition because my partner messed up.”

I’ve heard just about every iteration of these thoughts from social dancers. Some more often than others. 

But, should we be saying these things?

The general rule is that no, we should not be spending our precious social dance time talking badly about the people who gave us their time. There are some notable exceptions where it is SOMETIMES OK to critique:

  • Partners who are dangerous
  • Partners who are rude or mean

It’s also important that these things don’t get used as a ‘scapegoat’. For example, I don’t follow movements that I feel are dangerous. That’s my rule. I also would never expect a lead to ever continue doing something that felt unsafe. However, I would never say “I don’t dance with beginners because they’re dangerous.” This is a false equivalency and an excuse for not dancing with a certain group.

Those exceptions are not the subject of this article. Those exceptions are partners where you need to address the behavior (preferably directly with the dancer, or with a teacher/scene lead you trust).

This article is about general, decent dancers in the scene who – for whatever reason – just don’t happen to be your favourite partners. 

It’s totally OK to be less-than-totally-overjoyed about your dances with these people. It’s OK to say ‘No’, or to not be on top form when dancing with them. But, it is NOT OK to start talking badly about them because you didn’t enjoy the dance.

That, quite simply, is rude.

There is a difference between talking badly about someone, and critiquing something in a dance. The difference is usually when we BLAME the partner for a bad dance.

  • A critique could be:
    • “I felt like that lead was too rough for me” or
    • “It felt difficult to move that follow.”
  • Speaking badly could be:
    • “You can’t get that follow to do anything” or
    • “That lead doesn’t care about follows. He is a rough lead”.

You’ll see that a critique usually focuses on how you related to the partner. Speaking badly usually is about something the partner did wrong. It may seem like a small difference, but it completely transforms the thought.

Speaking badly of a partner is rarely (if ever) appropriate in social dancing.

Most people do critique other dancers at least occasionally – and especially with close friends. It is a good idea to keep this to a minimum. While not as harmful as trash-talk, it still can leave a negative aftertaste.

Critiques are not necessarily harmful in and of themselves – but a good rule is to say something nice for each ‘critique’ you give. For example:

  • “His lead is too rough for me, but I’m happy he enjoys dancing so much!”
  • “She overstyles like crazy, but she does really give her all to a dance!”
  • “He can’t keep time, but he’s always very careful to not hurt me”
  • “She doesn’t really connect to the dance, but you can tell she really cares anyways”

Every single dancer has their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own journey. Some may excel quickly; others may work for years and barely stay on time. Some want to be the best; some just want to have some nice, fun little dances. Some may have an area that they are awesome at, but struggle deeply with something else. Recognize this, and think carefully before putting someone in a ‘bad dancer’ box.

It’s easy to pass judgement on someone else’s dancing – it’s a lot harder to look at your own shortcomings and realize that, whatever the issue was, you probably contributed to it in some way. That’s where egos come from: dancers who consciously or unconsciously think that they have the right to criticize others, but believe that it is invalid when others criticize them.

Of course, you should also be gentle on yourself. If you’re someone who looks at every mistake as your fault, be careful about over-assuming the blame. Mistakes happen. Usually both partners contribute to it – not just you.

When we speak badly about a dance partner, it makes us look bad. For example:

  • The person who blames their partner for a bad competition result looks like a sour person and ungrateful partner.
  • The dancer who  trashes the beginner who can’t keep time looks like someone who has forgotten what it feels like to be a beginner.
  • The lead who blames their follow for why the cool moves didn’t work sounds like a terrible lead.
  • The follow who blames the lead for not leading ideally sounds like a stuck-up follow

A note on competitionsRegardless of what style of competition it is, don’t trash your partner. If you’re being individually judged, you probably didn’t make it through because of something you did or did not do. Judges are skilled enough to see if you should go forward or not. If you are judged as a couple, be gracious. You chose to compete with them – or compete in a random competition. You agreed when you signed up to dance with whoever came your way. Stop blaming them.

This type of blame isn’t constructive at all. It’s parallel to the dancer you see looking completely bored on the dance floor. They may think it makes them look ‘better’ because others can observe how bored they are with that ‘simple’ beginner. In reality, people see a sour person who doesn’t give a crap about the partner.

In contrast, the dancer who looks like they’re having a really. swell. time. with that beginner looks like a fun partner. You may not be able to see the extent of their skills, but you *can* see that giant, beaming smile – and their partner’s smile.

Further, the people who can make beginners look good are usually the more skilled dancers. There’s a reason pro’s can make everyone look good: they know what they’re doing inside and out. If you feel like your partner is making your dance into a pile of poop, you’re probably not advanced.

Why? If you were that advanced, you’d be able to compensate for your partner’s shortcomings without breaking a sweat. 

I’ll use leading in Zouk to illustrate my point, but it applies to all dances in a similar way. Some beginners are good with body isolations; some really struggle. Others can really keep rhythm; some can’t hear the music. Some can do all the steps – but aren’t connecting.

The response? Work my dance around what they *can* do, or what I can lead (not force) them to do. I can still be musical and have a decent dance without even moving my feet. Or, I can have a great dance with absolutely no head or body movement. I can even have a great dance if the follow *will not move on the beat*.

Just because I can compensate for beginners well does not mean I’m the best lead in the world. I can still improve, and sometimes the stuff that goes wrong *is* my fault – no matter how well I know that movement. This is true of every dancer – including teachers. Teachers are just better at realizing that mistakes happen, and they move on more quickly.

It is the same story when I’m following. I can help a lead catch the timing. I can help direct a lead where they need to go. I can execute an imperfect (but safe) lead. I don’t stand there and say “The lead didn’t lead the basic properly so it’s all their fault that I stepped on their foot”. I mean, come on, I know the bloody basic step. If it is somewhat led – even unexpectedly or imperfectly – I’ll just do the friggin step.I’m not petty.

Don’t be petty. It’s not a good look on anyone.

Once again, I do not apply this logic if I feel I’m in danger. Dangerous leads are a separate subject. I’m talking about leads that aren’t risky, but have follows who decide to pick on imperfections because they weren’t able/didn’t want to interpret the lead.

If I miss a lead for a basic step, I have two options:

  1. Blame the lead for the fact that we didn’t do the basic, or
  2. Recognize that the move flubbed, but realize it doesn’t mean it was *all* the lead’s fault – and that it doesn’t mean that the lead is entirely horrid in everything they do.

Get rid of that blame card. It’s not helping you or your partner.

If you think you are advanced, ask yourself this: do you frequently feel dance partners are too low-level to give you a decent dance? (Note that I said decent – not great – dance) If you answer ‘Yes’, you’re probably not an advanced dancer yet.

In the end, speaking badly about our dance partners only serves to illustrate our own insecurities and shortcomings. Be a generous dancer – not a selfish one. Even if you *do* sometimes slip into the habit of trash-talk, consciously remind yourself to not do it again. If it’s a habit, try doubly hard. It will only serve to make you look and be better – both as a dancer and a person.


Photo: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios